What is a starling murmuration and why do they form?

16 Nov 2018

Winter brings with it one of nature’s true spectacles: starling murmurations. But what is a starling murmuration, and why do these hypnotic gatherings form?

What is a starling murmuration?

Murmurations are huge groups of starlings that twist, turn, swoop and swirl across the sky in beautiful shape-shifting clouds.

Just before dusk, small groups of starlings from the same area come together above a communal roosting site. The group grows ever larger, moving in unison in an aerial dance that casts gorgeous shapes against the waning daylight.

Why do starling murmurations form?

Starlings are known as ‘partial migrants’: birds that migrate in some places but not in others. Our own starlings tend to stay put while those from colder countries in eastern Europe head to our shores, swelling our numbers during autumn and winter to form seriously impressive flocks.

Scientists believe that murmurations offer safety in numbers; protection from predators attracted by the sheer number of birds. After all, it can’t be easy to single out just starling bird from a whirling group of hundreds or even thousands! Experts still aren’t completely sure how each starling knows which way to turn without bumping into its murmuration-mates.

Murmurations always form over the birds’ communal roosting site. As the number of starlings reaches its peak and the last of the daylight begins to fade, an unspoken signal seems to tell the group to funnel towards the ground with one last sweeping motion and calming whoosh of wings. Roosts can be anything from a reedbed to a seaside pier where the group can huddle together for warmth and chatter about the best feeding grounds.

When is the best time to see a starling murmuration?

These starling spectaculars form during autumn and winter. Most migrant starlings have usually arrived here by late November/early December, making this the prime time to watch a murmuration at its peak. Wrap up warm and make sure you arrive before dusk to watch the murmuration from start to finish.

Starling murmurations at Brockholes

At Brockholes, the best sightings seem to have been from the Look Out, on the Guild Wheel path. The murmurations have been varying in size and length of time, but seem to be starting from around 3:30pm for perhaps an hour.

Have you ever seen a starling murmuration? We’d love to see your pictures on social media. You can send us your snaps on Facebook and Twitter, or tag us in your pictures on Instagram.

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